Book artist Felicia Rice poses with her work at Partners Gallery in Mendocino. (Courtesy of the artist)
Last time I spoke with Felicia Rice, she was figuring out where to buy essentials in Mendocino. It was six months into the pandemic, and she and her husband, Jim, had just arrived there after losing their home. It was one of the nearly 1,500 buildings destroyed in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire that scorched the Santa Cruz mountains in August 2020.
Now that she’s a year and a half removed from the tragedy, Rice can’t help but marvel at the cruel way life sometimes imitates art. She’s a book artist and owner of Moving Parts Press whose work since the 1970s has dealt with social justice and humans’ impact on the environment. An illustrated book she published two months before the blaze, The Necropolitics of Extraction with activist and UC Santa Cruz art historian T.J. Demos, calls out how capitalism’s incessant drive for bigger, faster and more leads to death and destruction across the globe.
“When the fire came, Necropolitics was just like, oh yeah, here we are, in the middle of climate change. This is what it produces, these massive fires. And then the book goes up in smoke,” Rice says with a laugh of disbelief.
Although she lost three quarters of the editions of that project, she was able to salvage some copies. That book and two others (Doc/Undoc and Borderbus, powerful meditations on colonialism and immigration created with artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña and poet Juan Felipe Herrera, among others) are on view through March 6 at in Three Letter Press Printers Walk Into a Shed at Partners Gallery. The show also features work by Theresa Whitehill and Zida Borcich and is part of BAM! Book Arts Mendocino!, a festival the three of them organized in January and February.
“We make kind of a power trio and collectively have about 120 years of letterpress experience,” she says of her camaraderie with the other two women, who have helped her get reestablished after losing almost everything.
Moving Parts Press was housed in the downstairs level of the Bonny Doon home Rice rented with her husband for 25 years. Most of their possessions and Rice’s equipment burned, including 190 cases of irreplaceable European moveable type. Many book editions listed on the Moving Parts Press website are now accompanied with a note: “Out of print due to 8/20 fire.”
But beyond a dollar-sign value of items lost (which is in the hundreds of thousands), the emotional toll was enormous. The fire destroyed an archive of Rice’s artwork and that of her parents, the artists Miriam and Ray Rice. Family photos and heirlooms went up in smoke: the house was the childhood home of her sons Gabe and Will, the latter of whom is better known as the Oakland music producer and multi-instrumentalist Wax Roof. The family became one of the many who couldn’t afford to return to the Santa Cruz area after being displaced by environmental disaster.
“For her to press onward without missing a beat, damn near within months of the house burning down, it made me see, like, ‘Damn, I can’t freeze or spiral. Let me talk to her about what’s motivating her,’” says Will, adding that his mom’s perseverance gave him the resolve to continue making music during the pandemic. “And she was like, ‘I don’t survive to be making a statement. My survival is a statement.’”
Rice was fortunate to own a modest home in Mendocino that once belonged to her parents. She spent a large portion of her childhood there, and her parents, who once worked with apprentices of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, were founding faculty members at the Mendocino Art Center. As a publisher, she’s always collaborating with poets, scholars, activists and artists around Northern California and beyond. So her creative community sprang into action to help her recover.
A GoFundMe with 769 backers raised $86,000 and counting to help build a new Moving Parts Press studio, which is still in the works after a lengthy permitting process. People donated letterpress equipment. Borcich and Whitehill, who is the former poet laureate of Ukiah, wrote about Rice’s story for Mendocino’s Real Estate Magazine, which Borcich publishes.
Book Arts Mendocino came together “because they embraced me,” says Rice. “The Partners Gallery saw the story and they said, ‘We’d love to do a show of your work.’ And then I started proposing that it be more than just in the galleries—that the bookstore, the museums and the libraries would all be interested in contributing. The calligraphy people and the book binders and everybody. The book arts umbrella is huge, and I’m very interested in the power of the community of bookmakers.”
Over the past two months, the festival has animated the Mendocino coast with exhibitions, workshops, poetry open mics, artist talks and tours. (Meanwhile, an exhibition of artist books by Enrique Chagoya, many of which were published by Moving Parts Press, are on display at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through March 6.) The way the community came together around Rice has motivated her to keep harnessing their collective power for environmental and social justice advocacy.
She and Whitehill are working on a new book, Heavy Lifting, that juxtaposes global crises of climate change, the pandemic, housing and mass incarceration with personal crises. A prototype will be on display in April at the CODEX International Book Fair at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond. “She and I talked and talked, and she developed a whole suite of poems that deal with this time that we’re in—of survival, and for me, trying very hard to imagine a future that I want to live in while while recovering my balance and gaining strength,” Rice says.
“While I’m building my community for myself, I’m also thinking real hard about how can we respond in some way that’s effective to what what we’re dealing with right now,” she adds.
“Where it starts out as seeming like these harmless intellectuals at work, it has the potential to come together into something much more powerful than each of us satisfying our own needs,” Rice says of her growing community in Mendocino. “The personal and the public, the individual and collective energies can do more. And we need to do more now.”
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